Digital Practices: Situating People, Things and Data

International Conference of the DFG Research Training Group „Locating Media“

June 7–9, 2016 | University of Siegen, Artur-Woll-Haus



People, things, and data are ever more on the move. This movement takes particular forms that can be situated. Especially practice-based approaches have been pivotal in describing how people, things and data are interrelated in what are often called digital practices. These take different forms depending on who connects with whom, where, and in which ways.

But what are digital practices? Despite the frequent use of the concept, it is in many cases not clear what makes practices digital, or what the specificity of digital practices is. Therefore, the conference aims at providing a forum to discuss digital practices from different vantage points, ranging from considering human-to-human communication via digital means to automated machine-to-machine systems, such as developed under the heading of „Internet of Things.“ The attempts to situate digital practices have led to a wide array of innovative research designs, in which digital devices are used as part of research methods. These range from rather classic data collection to digital methods, in which particular algorithms are created in order to study how digital devices and data behave. In order to situate people, things, and data, particularly qualitative, ethnographic studies have again been helpful for providing a broader context for the use of these devices. Digital practices take manifold forms, and are meaningful in very different ways depending on who is part of them where, and in which ways. We invite theoretical and/or empirical contributions discussing digital practices from either perspective: as phenomena to be studied, or as part of innovative research designs.



Opening Keynote of the Collaborative Research Center „Media of Cooperation“
18:00 h
Geoffrey Bowker: Being Human: The Analog and the Digital of it All

I argue that big data is creating fundamentally new forms of social fact: society, and humans, are just not the same kind of thing before and after the development of big data analytics. I trace this in two moments – one from the late eighteenth century (the epochs of governmentality and the database) and second from the past twenty to thirty years (the epoch of ever faster data analysis and feedback). The argument is that the first moment reflected a fundamental epistemic break from previous forms of governance; and that the second constitutes a quantitative change of such scope that it is becoming a qualitative change – leading to the creation of new kinds of social fact and calling for a new kind of sociology.


10:00 – 10:30 h
Judith Ackermann, Asko Lehmuskallio and Tristan Thielmann

10:30 – 12:00 h
Social Practices
Chairs: Judith Ackermann and Cornelius Schubert
Michael Lynch: Taming “the Dogs of Tacit Knowledge”? Instructed Actions and Instructional Technologies

Many familiar debates in science and technology studies, philosophy, and communication and information studies revolve around the relationship between formal rules, plans and instructions, and the situated actions performed in (or out of) accord with them. Of particular interest is the “gap” between formal instructions and the contingent production of such actions. The concept of tacit knowledge provides a gloss for the various practices that fill the gap. A question that has long been debated is whether technological innovations can ever close that gap. This lecture briefly reviews such debates, but it does not aim to resolve them. Instead, it examines how the malleable concept of tacit knowledge is reconfigured when instructions and directions are conveyed through different media. Based on exercises on the ethnomethodological theme of instructed actions, which were performed for a graduate seminar, this lecture devotes particular attention to troubles that arise during way-finding exercises with Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. These exercises show how the instructional technology itself becomes a contingency, and an occasional source of trouble, for reconfigured practices of wayfinding. They also encourage critical reëxamination of the concept of tacit knowledge in studies of practical actions.

Leopoldina Fortunati: Living with Social Robots

Living with social robots will be common in the next future. Many scholars are convinced that they can be considered as the next, new media. After a long period of penetration and development in industrial sectors (since the end of the 1960s), today robotics is addressing the everyday life, the terrain of social reproduction of the labor force, at material and immaterial level. Domestic labor, education, communication, information, entertainment, rehabilitation, health, care and companionship are the new frontiers of social robotics. This shift, however, from industry to home and public services and institutions requires and expresses a different approach, because the needs of customers and the general context here are different.
Research laboratories and industries are ready to propose new social robots, but there is still the need to understand how to carry out the “last mile” from them to possible customers.
In this presentation, I will illustrate the real diffusion of robots in society and the new and old forms of robots. Then I will pass to analyze the rise in society of several automation processes, including the robotification of the human body. Finally, I will report on some research I have done on the attitudes and opinions of Europeans towards robots and on the social shaping of imagination and knowledge on robots among children and youth.


– Lunch –

14:00 – 15:30 h
Data Practices
Chairs: Carolin Gerlitz and Asko Lehmuskallio
Susanna Paasonen: Fascinating Distractions in Networked Media

The quest to capture user attention – for something to stick rather slide by – is at the very heart of the political economy of social media. In this framework, attention emerges as something of a scarce resource in a media environment characterised by the abundance of available media content. At the same time, attention is, in its fast shifts and constantly altering directions, difficult to tell apart from the dynamics of distraction.
Distraction refers both to pleasurable entertainment and dissatisfactory disorientation. It is both an affective and a cognitive state, both desired and undesired, both chosen and difficult for an individual to control. It signifies rupture and reorientation of attention: when distracted, one’s attention jumps and moves, comes to a halt and perhaps fails to come into focus at all.
Exploring these dynamics in the context of social media, this talk proposes alternatives for those contemporary diagnoses that frame networked communications and the accelerating speeds of online attention economy as erosive forces resulting in poverty of attention – or even in a culture characterised by terminal distraction and digital dementia. Exploring distraction and attention as modulations in intensity, I propose understanding them as patterns in the same affective fabric, which, in the context of networked media, involves particular rhythms, models of monetization, forms of capture and escape.

Jonathan Gray and Liliana Bounegru: Visualisation Practices: Accounting for Datasets and Data Infrastructures

Data visualisations are becoming an increasingly prominent genre for the representation and mediation of information around us – from the dashboards of social media platforms to interactive news graphics to the websites of public institutions. What might a critical literacy for reading particular data visualisations look like? How do they guide our attention? What do they show and what do they hide? Where do the ideals, rationales and narratives that they embody come from and how are they put to work?
Inspired by John Berger’s 1972 classic Ways of Seeing (Berger, 1972), in this presentation we propose elements for a critical literacy for data visualisations – drawing on research and insights from new media studies, science and technology studies, the history and philosophy of science and cultural studies.
Drawing on recent literature in this area (e.g. Drucker, 2014, Halpern, 2015), we propose a heuristic framework organised around three forms of mediation that can be studied in relation to datavisualisations: (i) the mediation from world to data; (ii) the mediation from data to image; and (iii) the mediation from image to eye in the socially, culturally and historically specific “ways of seeing” engendered in the visualisations.
In order to illustrate these elements we draw on an analysis of a collection of projects to visually represent public finances – including examples from civil society organisations, media outlets and public institutions. Finally we present some research towards visualising data infrastructures.


– Coffee Break –

16:00 – 17:30 h
Historical Practices
Chairs: Christoph Borbach and Sebastian Gießmann
Thomas Haigh: We Have Never Been Digital

This title of this talk splices together those of two books, putting Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (1993), and with it the perspectives of science and technology studies, into dialog with the overheated dot com era boosterism of Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital (1995). Quickly surveying the history of the “digital humanities” concept, I suggest that it was adopted primarily to align marginalized and demoralized scholarly fields with a broader social faith in the transformative power of the “digital” just as Internet technologies were losing their unfamiliar futurity and integrating themselves into the taken- for-granted fabric of daily practice. While the “digital humanities” identity has had undeniable success in building reputations, careers, communities, and institutions and in winning precious research dollars and funding lines I believe that this uncritical and ahistorical embrace of the problematic category of “the digital” means that much digital humanities work draws its practitioners away from the unique insights that the humanities themselves can provide on the role of information technology in the modern world.
Instead, I suggest, humanists would benefit from treating information technologies, and the ideas and categories with which we understand them, as objects with their own contested histories. To illustrate this I sketch the lessons digital humanities scholars could learn from three bodies of work within the history of information technology:
– the actual meaning of “digital” and differences between analog and digital computation;
– the enduring association of computer technology with what Gabrielle Hecht called “rupture talk,” intended to favor the interests of particular social groups by promising a world remade by technology;
– and the long history of efforts to define familiarity with computer programming as the most important experience by which non-specialists could come to understand the potential of computer technology.

Caroline Bassett: Human Practices/Digital Practices: Joseph Weizenbaum and the Rationality-Logicality Equation

Eliza, a computer programme approximating a Rogerian therapist developed MIT in the early 1970s, became for a time ‘the most widely quoted computer program in history’, gaining a celebrity that dismayed its creator, the computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum. Eliza’s success led Weizenbaum to re-appraise the relationship between ‘computer power and human reason’ – and the differences and similarities between human and computational practices. In particular he questioned the ‘powerful delusional thinking’ about computers and their intelligence that he understood to be widespread – and not only in general public, but also amongst communities of experts. The key question for Weizenbaum was whether human thought could be ‘entirely computable’ (reducible to logical formalism) but this also provoked him to re-consider the nature of machine intelligence – and of particular note here – to question the instantiation of such forms of intelligence in the social world where they operated, he said, as a ‘slow acting poison’. Exploring Weizenbaum’s 20th Century apostasy – the rejection of computer power by man whose life had been spent at one of its ‘temples of learning’ – in the light of Eliza, usefully points to ways in which today’s pre-occupations with embedding of smart technologies into everyday life – what I would term automation anxiety – connects with earlier formations and is as much a revival as an inauguration.

– Coffee Break –

18:00 – 19:30 h
Panel Discussion
Chair: Cornelius Schubert
Ecologies and Practices: Perspectives on How to Study Humans and Data
with Geoffrey Bowker, Carolin Gerlitz, Tim Ingold, Michael Lynch and Erhard Schüttpelz


9:30 – 11:00 h
Spatial Practices
Chairs: Asko Lehmuskallio and Anna Ramella
Shireen Walton: Moving Digital Ethnography in and out of Place.

This paper explores the epistemological and methodological implications of moving – physically, digitally and metaphorically – in and out of places (geographical, social and digital) as part of the ethnographic pursuit. It draws on research carried out on- and offline with Iranian photobloggers living in six countries, who travel in/out of and across Iran documenting aspects of their public/private lives in changing socio-political, technological and biographical contexts to viewers across the globe via photoblogs and social media. Digital technologies here are in one sense consciously ‘landscaped’ (DeNicola 2012) and ‘emplaced’ (Pink and Hjorth 2012) with the place of Iran; a ‘topographical consciousness’ (Benjamin 1940) that, for Iranian photobloggers, mobilises the medium towards their message. At the same time, these practices mediate photographers’ and viewers’ existing sense of place – as Iranians and ‘foreigners’ physically/virtually moving in and out of the(ir) country. This has a range of epistemological and methodological implications for all those ‘travelling’ with them across the globe, including the ethnographer. How can this ensemble of mobilities be reconciled and productively incorporated into the ethnographic pursuit, and its methodological design? The paper concludes with theoretical and methodological reflections on conducting fieldwork in distributed social fields, with mobile research participants physically and digitally moving in and out of places.

Gillian Rose: The Spatialities of Digital Practice: Flow, Vertigo, Frame

This paper will reflect on the spatialities through which digital flows can be conceptualised, particularly the flows of digital images which mediate so much everyday experience now, from social media platforms to movies to advertising. The paper draws partly on ethnographic materials gathered in the course of a project examining how digital visualisations were used in the design of a large urban redevelopment project, and partly on ongoing work on visualisations of the ’smart city‘. It will suggest that understanding the geometries of data movement requires (at least) three terms: flow, vertigo and frame. Flow refers to transit and the assemblages of people, software and hardware at specific locations that enable mobility and pause. Vertigo refers to the peculiarly digital spatiality which animates many digital images, and which entrains human bodies in specific ways. Frame refers to the tactics deployed by humans and software to give shape to, and delimit, both flow and vertigo. The paper thus suggests how we might think about the space in which we situate digital practices.


– Coffee Break –

11: 30 h
Closing Keynote
Chair: Anna Ramella
Tim Ingold: Life Off Screen

We live in a world of multiple and heterogeneous surfaces: there are the surfaces of the skin, of clothing, of furniture, of walls and buildings, of streets and fields, of the ground itself and the features that form in its crumples and folds. Every surface has its distinctive texture that enables us to recognise it for what it is. These textures are woven from the warp and weft of materials. Screens, too, were once woven from linear constituents, whether of thread (as in fabric) or of pliant, woody materials (as in screens of wicker). They were designed for protection or concealment. Yet from the cinema to the TV and digital computer, today’s screens are the opposite of what they once were. They are anti- screens. The anti-screen is based on the principle of the point and plane, not on the principle of the line. Its surface is perfectly homogeneous and indifferent to the figures and images that play upon it. It has no texture. And it is designed for revelation, for showing things. In the anti-screen, the haptics of weaving or gathering give way to the optics of projection. In this talk I consider how this transformation in the nature of the screen surface, and our ways of relating to it, affects our perception of off-screen life.

13:00 End



Geoffrey Bowker

Geoffrey C. Bowker is Professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. He moved to UCI at the start of 2012, having held the positions of Professor and Senior Scholar in Cyberscholarship at the University of Pittsburgh School of Information. Prior to that, Bowker was Executive Director and Regis and Dianne McKenna Professor at the Center for Science, Technology and Society at Santa Clara University. Previously, Bowker was chair of the Department of Communication at the University of California – San Diego and has held appointments at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Michael Lynch

Michael E. Lynch is a professor at the department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. His works are particularly concerned with ethnomethodological approaches in science studies. Much of his research has addressed the role of visual representation in scientific practice. From 2002-2012 he was the editor of Social Studies of Science.

Leopoldina Fortunati

Leopoldina Fortunati is the director of the Research Laboratory on New Media NuMe at the University of Udine where she teaches Sociology of Communication and Culture and Laboratory of Social Robotics. She has conducted several research in the field of gender studies, cultural processes and communication and information technologies. She is associate editor of the journal The Information Society and serves as referee for many outstanding journals. She is the co-chair with Richard Ling of the International Association „The Society for the Social Study of Mobile Communication“ (SSSMC). Her works have been published in twelve languages: Bulgarian, Chinese, Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Slovenian, Spanish.

Susanna Paasonen

Susanna Paasonen is professor of Media Studies at University of Turku, Finland. With an interest in studies of affect, sexuality, and media theory, she is most recently the author of Carnal Resonance: Affect and Online Pornography (MITP 2011) as well as co-editor of Working with Affect in Feminist Readings: Disturbing Differences (Routledge 2010) and Networked Affect (MITP 2015). Her current book-length projects explore the hashtag #NSFW as well as the dynamics of boredom, distraction and anxiety connected to networked media.

Thomas Haigh

Thomas Haigh studied Computer Science at the University of Manchester and History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. He has researched many different aspects of the history of computing and information technology. Haigh is an Associate Professor of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, a Visiting Professor at Siegen University, and the immediate past chair of SIGCIS, the group for historians of information technology. He is the coauthor of ENIAC in Action (MIT, 2016) and the editor of Histories of Computing (Harvard, 2011). Learn more at

Caroline Bassett

Caroline Bassett is Professor of Digital Media and Director of the Sussex Humanities Lab at University of Sussex, and Helsingin Sanomat Foundation Fellow, Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, University of Helsinki. Recently published work explores feminism and the post-digital, social austerity and digital plenty, big data and the politics of expertise. She is currently completing a monograph on anti-computing and automation anxiety.

Shireen Walton

Shireen Walton is a Postdoctoral Associate and Tutorial Fellow of the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at the University of Oxford.
She has a BA in history (UCL) and MPhil and DPhil in Anthropology (Oxford). Her doctoral thesis, entitled Camera Iranica: Popular Digital Photography in/of Iran
looked at the contemporary genre of popular digital photography in Iran, and the social/media practice of photoblogging, highlighting continuities and developments in the medium of photography in a digital age. As part of this research, she explored and designed digital and visual methods for undertaking collaborative and participatory ethnographic research online and remotely. Shireen also co-facilitates the Oxford Digital Ethnography Group (OxDEG); an interdisciplinary hub for qualitative digital research she helped establish in 2013 between the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology (ISCA) and the Oxford Internet Institute (OII).

Gillian Rose

Gillian Rose is Professor of Cultural Geography at The Open University, UK and a Fellow of the British Academy. Her current research interests focus on contemporary digital visual culture and on so-called ’smart cities‘. She is the author of Doing Family Photography: The Domestic, The Public and The Politics of Sentiment (Ashgate, 2010) and Visual Methodologies (Sage, fourth edition 2016), as well as a number of papers on images and ways of seeing in urban and domestic spaces. Gillian blogs at visual/method/culture, and a full list of her publications can be found at

Tim Ingold

Tim Ingold (born 1948) is a British anthropologist, currently Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. He was educated at Leighton Park School and Cambridge University. He is a fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Ingold is researching and teaching today on the connections between anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture (the ‘4 As’), conceived as ways of exploring the relations between human beings and the environments they inhabit. Taking an approach radically different from the conventional anthropologies and archaeologies ‘of’ art and of architecture, which treat artworks and buildings as though they were merely objects of analysis, he is looking at ways of bringing together the 4 As on the level of practice, as mutually enhancing ways of engaging with our surroundings.


Directions to Siegen

By car: Siegen is reached by motorway A45 Dortmund-Frankfurt/M. Take the exit ‘Siegen/Netphen’ and follow the directions to Netphen/Universität (on motorway B 62). Take the exit ‘Universität’, which takes you directly to ‘Am Eichenhang’. Pass the traffic lights, follow the street and turn left immediately after the pedestrian crossing. Parking space is available in front of and (more conveniently) behind the building.

From train/bus station Siegen-Weidenau to Artur Woll-Haus: the conference venue can be reached in 10 min by foot from Siegen-Weidenau train and bus station. (Warning: it’s an uphill hike). Coming out of the train station and facing the bus terminal, turn right and walk straight past a demolished building until you reach an underpass and railway crossing on the right side. Cross the tracks and walk straight ahead (past the Gartenhaus restaurant and some shops). This street is called ‘Auf den Hütten’. Take the first left turn into ‘Formerstrasse’, cross the tracks again and pass under the flyover. Turn right into ‘Am Eichenhang’ (this is the uphill part). The Artur Woll-Haus is the first building on the left.

Airports, train connections, buses: the airports closest to Siegen are Frankfurt/Main and Cologne/Bonn. Both airports are ca. 2 – 2 1/2 hours away from Siegen by train.

From Frankfurt Airport, take a local train to Frankfurt Main station (Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof) and then change for a train to Siegen Hauptbahnhof. (You may have to change at Giessen.) The earliest train runs at 4.32 and the last one runs at 21.02. A one-way-ticket is 35.00 Euros.

From Köln-Bonn airport, there is no direct train either (change at Troisdorf). The earliest train to Siegen leaves at 8.16, the last one at 23.04, a one-way-ticket is 19,20 Euros.

The hotel is best reached from Siegen Hauptbahnhof. If you are planning to go directly to the conference venue, go to Siegen-Weidenau.

There is a regular bus connection (Line C111) from Siegen Hauptbahnhof via Weidenau Bahnhof to the conference venue (bus stop: Am Eichenhang).

University of Siegen
Artur Woll-Haus
Am Eichenhang 50
57076 Siegen


Admission for the conference is free.
For organizational purposes, please register by sending a short email to

Dr. Judith Ackermann
Academic Coordinator
Research Training Group Locating Media